Medieval Egg Tempera Painting in the Middle School Classroom

I love getting to see the breadth of style and skill in my class. 
I love teaching students how to egg tempera paint; it has got to be one of my all-time, favorite units.  Egg tempera is the method medieval artists used to create their paintings.  Artists like Giotto (when he wasn’t working on the Scrovegni Chapel), Cimabue, as well as most medieval religious, liturgical, and iconographers utilized egg tempera.  The reason for the widespread usage of eggtempera (prior to the renaissance) is simple: it was the only reliable/durable/sustainablemethod of painting on panel. Even Leonardo Da Vinci used egg tempera. . .But, as the medieval era gave way to the renaissance, oil painting was invented.  In fact, Da Vinci was one of the first artists to use oil painting. Eventually, he abandoned egg tempera in favor of the longer-drying, longer-time-to-manipulate, high-blending qualities of oil painting.
Egg tempera requires the use of small brushes, as the paint goes on in thin, translucent strokes. The artist must build up several layers of color to achieve opacity; as such, it is a timely process. The best results are achieved when the artist uses a hatch-like stroke. Egg tempera is fast drying, and most artists only mix up enough paint for the duration of the time they will be working.  As such, the paint cannot be stored for a long time, and the method requires constant mixing. Essentially, the artist is making paint as s/he goes.

My students were initially a bit reserved about mixing their own paint.  But, after the first class of egg tempera, they were thrilled.  Students were rushing down during lunch to work on their paintings, getting to class early, and making all sorts of artistic demands. It was charming, and I loved seeing them so enflamed.

This one is still unfinished, but it is too gorgeous to not share. 
There are more academic, traditional, and intense methods to making egg tempera, than what my students used. . . The act of mixing paint is a bit ritualistic, and it would seem every egg tempera artist has his/her own specific, meaningful, manner of mixing paint. In fact, a YouTube search for “egg tempera” yields all sorts of beautiful, and interesting, results. . .But, we’re public school kids working on a shoe-string budget. . .So here in the inexpensive, down-and-dirty, easy egg tempera way.

Oh, and just FYI this is a project that focuses more on process than product.
You Will Need:
egg yolk (I taught 35 students and we used 3 dozen eggs)
tempera powder in R.O.Y.G.B.I.P, white, brown, and black colors (we used Richeson brand)
mixing trays/palettes
reference images (we used pictures of teacups)
wood board (you can egg tempera on paper/cardstock/matte board but the paper will warp when damp (this bothers a lot of kids). It was important to me my students get the “medieval” experience, so I purchased one of those huge pieces of oak board at Home Depot, and had it cut into 40 boards that are approximately 10 inch square. My total board cost: $26)
We started out with such neat dry-pigment palettes. This is how they looked on the last day. 😀
We used Richeson Powder Tempera. If you teach in an old building, I’ve bet you’ve got a few bottles of dry pigment rolling about. It was all the rage in the 80s and 90s. 
Step One:
Students gessoed their boards, and make a sketch of their reference image on sketch paper.

Step Two
We discussed how paint is comprised of binders, solvents, and pigments. We looked at this awesome video of an artist mixing oil paint. Then, I modeled how to mix egg tempera for this project. You can view the picture and video below for a visual aid. . . But, basically, you put a touch of pigment, egg yolk (binder), and water (solvent) on your palette and mix them together. I stressed how you only want to mix up enough paint for the area you plan to paint, as the mixture dries quickly (15-20 minutes).
Students translated their sketches to their boards and they painted.
We painted for 7, 45-minutes classes to achieve these results.

Go forth and enjoy!
P.S. A few egg tempera facts:
-the painted layers of egg yolk does not rot on the board; it is permanent.
-there is no perfect ratio of yolk to pigment to water. You’ll know what mix is perfect for you. Just remind students to add a bit of yolk because that is the needed binder.
-the yellow yolk does not really effect the pigment color. It does not turn blues green or anything like that. It does give the colors a warm luster, and the whites tend to be warmly tinted. 
-I stored the egg yolk in jello shot containers, and put them in a refrigerator when not in use.  You will know when the yolks start to “turn.” You will smell it long before you see it. The egg yolks stay fresh for about three days. But honestly, my kids were using up the egg yolks before they went bad. The only day that was kinda stinky was the last day (and we were so close, so I thought purchasing more eggs to be silly). 

a little pointillism seems to be happening here. 

3 thoughts on “Medieval Egg Tempera Painting in the Middle School Classroom”

  1. Oh my gosh Amy these are fabulous! Thanks for your incredible instructions; I've never done this. A simple question that seems king of dopey, but what the heck, here goes: do you scramble or beat the yolks? Or just plop a yoke in a container and pierce it's loveliness with your paintbrush? Or what?Meanwhile – you've said this is all about the process, but look! In the learning of the process, the product achieved by your students is spectacular! I mean, check out this fabulous artwork you've posted! Thanks to you and your students for sharing. Pinning!!

  2. Agree with the above comment- thanks for the super detailed instructions. I'd love to try this out sometime- a perfect combo of art history and painting.

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